One of the last community composting sites in New York City can be found under the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City. Mounds of mulch piled five feet high sit next to stacks of green bins and construction materials. The piles of organic matter are divided into phases by their decomposition stage. Some are composed of banana peels, orange rinds, and egg shells, while others resemble something closer to soil. These mounds are tended to by volunteers for Big Reuse, a non-profit composting site responsible for converting over one million pounds of food scraps to nutrient-rich soil each year.
Big Reuse and the Lower East Side Ecology Center at Corlears Hook Park in Lower Manhattan represent the remnants of a once-robust citywide organics recycling program that at its height operated with a $24.5 million annual budget, included residential curbside pickup, and diverted 2% of the city’s waste from landfills.
Both sites are on track to be moved by the city’s Parks Department over the next six months, after serving as drop-off sites for roughly a decade.
“We have a current Parks administration who doesn't think that community composting sites should be on Parks land, and no one really understands why,” says Justin Green, founder and executive director of Big Reuse, who’s overseen the site’s management since its creation in 2004.
Curbside compost collection was rolled out on Staten Island in 2012 under the guidance of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called it “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” By 2017, the program was serving 300,000 households, 722 schools, agencies and institutions, and 80 drop-off points. In 2019, the city collected 50,000 tons of compostables from curbside service alone.
The program was promoted as a major component of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of diverting 90% of waste from landfills by 2030. De Blasio's plan was to make composting both citywide and mandatory by 2018.
But without substantial funding for advertising and education, and with no immediate mandate for participation, the program foundered. By the beginning of 2020, a mere 10% of residents living in areas with curbside collection were using the brown bins the city gave them. An estimated 12,000 tons of waste, including organic food waste, continues to be shipped out to landfills as far as Virginia each day.
What remains of municipal organics recycling in New York pales in comparison to successful waste programs in other cities in the U.S., like Seattle and San Francisco. Both have passed laws requiring participation in composting. San Francisco now diverts 80 per cent of its overall waste from landfills through programs like organics recycling after becoming the first city in the country to pilot large-scale municipal composting in 1996.
New York’s program was cut altogether last year as a cost-saving measure at the start of the pandemic. The City Council restored $2.86 million for community composting operations in July, the funds for which support food scrap drop-off at botanical gardens and community gardens. Curbside and some farmers’ market collections are expected to remain suspended until next summer, at least.
Christine Datz-Romero, executive director of the LES Ecology Center, says the site had a record month in November, when its lease with the city came to an end.
“We collected 94,000 pounds of food scraps in that month, and that’s the biggest month we’ve ever had,” Datz-Romero says. “It just really speaks to the need that’s out there.”
Green, of Big Reuse, estimates that the two sites together are currently responsible for composting over half of the city’s food scraps received through all of the remaining drop-off sites. Ironically, one of their bigger clients is the Parks Department, which regularly deposits dead leaves, branches and yard waste collected throughout New York’s green spaces to turn into mulch, which is then returned to city parks.
“We thought it made perfect sense,” Green said, of the site’s mutually beneficial relationship with the department. “I thought we were really on this path towards a more sustainable NYC and I'm really disheartened to see that COVID been used as an excuse to abandon all that.” Big Reuse's lease with the Parks Department ran out in December.
The Parks Department cites case law from 2014, in which large-scale composting was found to be impermissible on Parks-owned land, as the primary reason for moving both sites. But composting advocates argue that the case doesn't apply, because it involved a massive 20-acre “industrial” composting site.
On December 18th, after members of the public and City Councilmembers Carlina Rivera and Antonio Reynoso testified in their support, Big Reuse was thrown a last-minute lifeline with a six-month lease extension. The Sanitation Department will work with staff to find a new location.
“As the caretaker of our City’s 30,000 acres of parks—of which 10,000 are natural areas—composting has long been a regular part of our sustainable management practices,” Parks Commissioner Mitchel Silver said in a statement. “In an effort to help Big Reuse continue their composting operations without interruption while they relocate, Parks will grant a 6-month extension of their use of Queensbridge Park.”
Meanwhile, the LES Ecology Center’s composting site plans to stay put until construction begins in the next several months for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, an initiative to build out the lower Manhattan waterfront to better prepare it for the flooding and sea level rise caused by climate change.
The LES Ecology Center’s stewardship and environmental education programming have been given space to operate in Seward Park while construction is underway, but the composting program has yet to find a new home. The Parks Department said that the Mayor’s Office is currently looking for a new composting site.
The Mayor's Office has not responded to a request for comment.
Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and a member of the Save Our Compost coalition that’s been fighting to save both sites, fears that without large-scale composters like Big Reuse and the LES Ecology Centre in operation, the city will stray away from its climate goals.
Composting diverts food waste from landfills, reducing emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas known to be 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide, among other environmental benefits. Composted soil is also nutrient-rich and highly stable, retaining water, reducing run-off and promoting plant growth without the use of fertilizers. As the second largest carbon sink in the world, after oceans, soil is vital in curbing rates of global warming.
Wood said he hoped that the city will commit to reviving curbside compost collection, and pointed to a 2016 study he co-authored for the Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition that found higher levels of job creation in U.S. cities with robust waste diversion programs than in those that primarily send all of their waste to landfills.
“We know that recycling and zero waste policies like composting create a lot of good local jobs,” he said. “It's just very frustrating that there's such a lack of coordination and common commitment to climate change and climate justice from [the city].”